Thursday, May 28th
I, Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father. In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel that has come to you. Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God. This you learned from Epaphras, our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf, and he has made known to us your love in the Spirit. For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
Like so many of you I have been fascinated by the creativity and intelligence of so many doctors and scientists who are investigating not only the cause and effect of the coronavirus, but the possibilities for treatments and vaccines. They understand the molecular world of biochemistry in ways that stun us with their insights and knowledge. As I’ve watched interviews with some of them about their work, I’m reminded of something that the theologian Dallas Willard once said to a group of us attending a conference at Regent College.: “Jesus was the smartest man who ever lived.” It was such a simple sentence, but for me, it was a most profound statement. So much of my study had been trying earnestly to understand the human Jesus that I had almost, in the parlance of the time, “dumbed” Jesus down. Perhaps I needed to readjust my theological glasses and get a more comprehensive view of Jesus. Paul’s letter to the Colossians has helped bring that into better focus.
Colossians has long been a controversial letter for Pauline scholars. The letter proclaims that it is written by Paul, but in the salutation he joins to his name that of his traveling companion, Timothy. This would not be considered all that unusual, because he was prone to do that in his writing. However, some scholars point out that the body of the letter itself reveals several instances where it would seem that this is not Paul writing, but someone in the Pauline tradition. The question of whether Paul actually wrote this letter is one of ongoing theological discussion. For our purposes, we will assume that Paul sent this letter, not only to a church in a place called Colossae, but to us.
This mysterious letter is one of Paul’s four Imprisonment Epistles (The others are Ephesians, Philippians, and Philemon.), and it gives us much to wonder about. We don’t know the exact location of his captivity at the time of its writing. And the city of Colossae is a bit of a mystery itself, in that it was leveled by an earthquake just a few years after this letter was drafted. The letter reveals a fondness that Paul had for the church. It was not one of the congregations that he had started himself. In fact, he had not visited it when he made his first missionary journey to Asia Minor, but he had received reports of its faithfulness. Thus, he writes this letter to express his affection and appreciation, and to encourage them in their Christian walks, especially in the face of heretical teachings that were causing problems among some of the members. We do not know the exact content of these teachings (Historians suggest that astrology, angel-worship, Greek religious influences, and cultic practices all may have played a part.), but it is obvious from Paul’s tone that he considers the false ideas a deadly danger to the young church.
Yet another mystery is found in verses 15-20 of today’s passage, which are separated above as a distinct paragraph for identification purposes. This portion of the scripture has a distinct style and a unique vocabulary, prompting students of Colossians to believe that it is actually a hymn, possibly a baptismal hymn that was already well-known and in use by first-century congregations. It is thought that Paul may have adapted this part of their liturgy, perhaps tweaked a word or phrase here and there, to effectively make his case even further, reminding his brothers and sisters that Christ gives meaning to the entire universe, and that Christ alone gives meaning and purpose to life. Paul is imploring them to put Christ first in their lives, and he does that in this letter with an intense, purposeful mixture of heart and head. He knew from personal experience the consequences of a city, a church and even a person who did not make Christ a priority in their lives.
Albert Schweitzer, who wore many proverbial hats as a physician, theologian, humanitarian, philosopher, organist, and writer, made many contributions to the study of Paul’s teachings. In Schweitzer’s 1906 book The Quest of the Historical Jesus, he wrote:
Jesus comes to us as One unknown,
without a name, as of old, by the lakeside.
He came to those men who knew him not.
He speaks to us the same word:
“Follow thou me!” and sets us to the tasks
which he has to fulfill in our time.
And to those who obey him,
whether they be wise or simple,
he will reveal himself
in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings
which they shall pass through in His fellowship,
and, as an ineffable mystery,
they shall learn in their own experience
who he is.
In the 1976 film Jesus of Nazareth, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, an eight-hour miniseries that is still shown on television every year around Easter time, Jesus was played by the fine British actor Robert Powell; Olivia Hussey portrayed Mary, his mother; Anne Bancroft was Mary Magdalene; and Ernest Borgnine had a small but crucial role as the centurion whose son Jesus healed and who was later present at the crucifixion. As Borgnine tells it: “When it came time for my scene during the crucifixion, the weather was chill and gray. The camera was to be focused on me at the foot of the cross, and so it was not necessary for Robert Powell, the actor who portrayed Jesus, to be there. Instead, Zeffirelli put a chalk mark on a piece of scenery beside the cameraman. ‘I want you to look up at that mark,’ he told me, ‘as if you were looking at Jesus.’ I hesitated. Somehow I wasn’t ready. I was uneasy. ‘Do you think it would be possible for somebody to read from the Bible the words Jesus said as He hung on the cross?’ I asked. I knew the words well from the days of my childhood in an Italian-American family in Connecticut, and I’d read them in preparation for the film. Even so, I wanted to hear them now. ‘I will do it myself,’ Zeffirelli said. He found a Bible, opened it to the Book of Luke, and signaled for the camera to start rolling. As Zeffirelli began reading Christ’s words aloud, I stared up at that chalk mark, thinking what might have gone through the centurion’s mind. That poor man up there, I thought. I met him when he healed my servant who is like a son to me. Jesus says he is the Son of God, an unfortunate claim during these perilous times. But I know he is innocent of any crime. ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.’ The voice was Zeffirelli’s, but the words burned into me – the words of Jesus. (Luke 23:34-46) Forgive me, Father, for even being here, was the centurion’s prayer that formed in my thoughts. I am so ashamed, so ashamed. ‘Verily I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with me in paradise,’ said Jesus to the thief hanging next to him. If Jesus can forgive that criminal, then He will forgive me, I thought. I will lay down my sword and retire to my little farm outside of Rome. Then it happened. As I stared upward, instead of the chalk mark, I suddenly saw the face of Jesus Christ, lifelike and clear. It was not the face of Robert Powell I was used to seeing, but the most beautiful, gentle visage I have ever known. Pain-seared, sweat-stained, with blood flowing down from thorns pressed deep, his face was still filled with compassion. He looked down at me through tragic, sorrowful eyes with an expression of love beyond description. Then his cry rose against the desert wind. Not the voice of Zeffirelli, reading from the Bible, but the voice of Jesus himself: ‘Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.’ In awe I watched Jesus’ head slump to one side. I knew he was dead. A terrible grief welled within me, and completely oblivious of the camera, I started sobbing uncontrollably. ‘Cut!’ yelled Zeffirelli. Olivia Hussey and Anne Bancroft were crying, too. I wiped my eyes and looked up again to where I had seen Jesus. He was gone. Whether I saw a vision of Jesus that windswept day or whether it was only something in my mind, I do not know. It doesn’t matter. For I do know that it was a profound spiritual experience, and that I have not been quite the same person since. I believe that I take my faith more seriously. I like to think that I’m more forgiving than I used to be. As that centurion learned two thousand years ago, I too have found that you simply cannot come close to Jesus without being changed.”
Perhaps in kneeling today, we’ll look up and have a better understanding of Jesus the Christ.
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
Years ago J.B. Phillips wrote a most interesting book, Your God Is Too Small. Take some time today to consider the grandeur of God. Imagine looking at this world as a scientist might, through a microscope or telescope, and see that there is more than meets the human eye or comprehension.
In the “hymn” portion of Paul’s letter, we find descriptions of Christ as: the image of the invisible God; firstborn of all creation; head of the body, the church; the indwelling fullness of God. Does one of these resonate with your belief and understanding more than another? Would there be another term that better portrays your faith’s image?
Paul used a hymn to speak to the hearts of his listeners. Music is such a force in our memories, thoughts and emotions. Can you call to mind a hymn, song, or chorus that is meaningful to you? Sing it as a prayer and as a way for God to speak to you.
A Poetic Guide for Prayer: Gerard Manley Hopkin’s “God’s Grandeur”
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.